Last week, I introduced Senate Bill 1129 (SB 1129), legislation that would change Pennsylvania’s voting system so that all elections are conducted entirely by mail.
The ongoing pandemic has compromised the health and safety of our citizens, shaken our economy and inflicted uncertainty and fear throughout Pennsylvania. While casting one’s vote in the upcoming election is hardly at the top of anyone’s priority list right now, my legislation would empower people to vote conveniently and safely by mail.
Under a bipartisan law approved last year, Act 77, Pennsylvanians already have the option of voting by mail. Beginning with this November’s general election, my legislation would conduct all elections exclusively by mail.
SB 1129 would require county election officials to mail ballots along with postage-free return envelopes to all registered voters weeks before an election. Voters could request a replacement ballot if they lose or misplace their ballot. Citizens could mail in their ballot any time prior to election day.
In the past, voters could only vote by mail if they requested an absentee ballot in advance and provided an excuse that included illness, disability or a known absence from the municipality where they live on Election Day.
My proposed mail-only voting system would be more accommodating, convenient, safer and less expensive. If approved, Pennsylvania would join five other states that hold mail-only elections. Voting by mail should be the norm, especially in these uncertain times when we don’t really know how dire the Covid-19 crisis will be by the time Election Day gets here.
Anyone who wants to vote by mail in the upcoming June 2 primary can apply for a mail-in ballot online at www.votespa.com and can track the status of their application by clicking here. The deadline to apply for mail-in ballots for the primary is May 26. Applications must be received by the Allegheny County Elections Division by 5 p.m. The deadline to return completed mail-in ballots is 8 p.m. on Election night, June. 2.
I also want to remind everyone that the Allegheny County Division of Elections will be mailing all registered voters in Allegheny County who have not yet applied for either a traditional absentee ballot or a new mail-in ballot, a mail-in ballot application. The mailing will include the mail-in ballot application and a postage-paid, addressed envelope to return that application to the Elections office.
Did You Know…
Did you know that mail-in ballots in Oregon were approved for all elections in 1998 by voter referendum with 69 percent of voters voting in favor of the mail-in option? Mail-in ballots were first used in the mid 1980’s for numerous local elections.
May 1 Statewide Reopening of Limited Outdoor Recreational Activities
To ensure that Pennsylvanians have opportunities to safely enjoy outdoor recreation as a way to maintain positive physical and mental health, and in keeping with the commonwealth’s stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Governor Wolf yesterday announced that the Wolf Administration is lifting some restrictions on businesses related to certain outdoor activities.
Starting this Friday, May 1, golf courses, marinas, guided fishing trips and privately owned campgrounds may reopen statewide and are required to follow updated life-sustaining business guidance and FAQ issued by the Wolf Administration to include specifics for how these outdoor recreational industries can resume activities while prioritizing public health and safety. Campgrounds in state parks will remain closed through Thursday, May 14.
According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half (45 percent) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over COVID-19 with the burden likely to continue even as the pandemic’s threat diminishes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on visiting parks and recreational facilities. These guidelines must be followed statewide by businesses and when engaging in outdoor activity while the state disaster declaration remains in effect. The guidelines will ensure the safety of individuals and families engaging in outdoor activities and adherence will help slow the spread of COVID-19.
- Stay close to home: Pennsylvanians are encouraged to enjoy permitted outdoor recreational activities within their community and avoid crowding popular destinations.
- Practice social distancing: Maintain the recommended minimum 6 feet apart from fellow recreationists. Pennsylvanians are also encouraged to wear a mask or protective garment that covers the nose and mouth any time they go outside. If a parking lot at a park is full or there are too many people on the same trail, find an alternate place to recreate. Cross the street to avoid running directly past another runner or wait longer at a golf hole for a fellow golfer to move forward.
- Minimize risk to others: Individuals should only go out if they feel healthy and have not been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
- Practice good hygiene: Wash hands often with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Avoid surfaces that are touched often, such as doorknobs and handrails.
- Have a plan: Create a safety plan before heading outdoors. Explain to children the need to keep their distance from others, even if they happen to see a friend while outside. Discuss with partners, social distancing while on the golf course. Think through how to avoid other runners when waiting to safely cross a street at the same time.
Last Wednesday, Governor Wolf presented his plan for reopening the commonwealth with a targeted May 8 start. The administration will categorize reopening into three phases: red, yellow, and green. Phases will be assigned based on conditions in a county, counties or region.
The administration will first study conditions in the north-central and northwest regions with a target of moving from red to yellow on May 8. Additional monitoring will take place and direction will be provided in the next week.
To decide when to move to a new phase, the administration will use Department of Health metrics and a data tool developed by Carnegie Mellon University.
The red phase, which currently applies to the whole state, has the sole purpose of minimizing the spread of COVID-19 through strict social distancing, non-life sustaining business and school closures, and building safety protocols.
As regions or counties move into the yellow phase, some restrictions on work and social interaction will ease while others, such as closures of schools, gyms, and other indoor recreation centers, as well as limitations around large gatherings, remain in place. The purpose of this phase is to begin to power back up the economy while keeping a close eye on the public health data to ensure the spread of disease remains contained to the greatest extent possible.
The green phase eases most restrictions by lifting the stay-at-home and business closure orders to allow the economy to strategically reopen while continuing to prioritize public health. While this phase will facilitate a return to a “new normal,” it will be equally important to continue to monitor public health indicators and adjust orders and restrictions as necessary to ensure the spread of disease remains at a minimum.
The governor’s full, detailed plan can be read by clicking here.
PHEAA Extends Rules Relief through Summer 2020 Term
As Vice-Chair of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) Board of Directors, I want inform students and families of action taken by the Board in response to the ongoing pandemic. Last week, the Board extended temporary modifications made to agency-administered Pennsylvania student aid programs through the Summer 2020 term to ensure that students do not experience any disruption or reduction of funding due to operational changes made by postsecondary schools in response to COVID-19.
PHEAA’s Board previously authorized the Agency to temporarily modify, suspend, or relax certain program requirements for Pennsylvania schools and their students for the 2020 Winter and Spring terms. Most recent action extends this relief through the Summer 2020 term.
Affected Pennsylvania student aid programs include:
- PA State Grant Program
- PA Targeted Industry Program (PA-TIP)
- Ready to Succeed Scholarship Program (RTSS)
- Institutional Assistance Grant (IAG) Program
- Matching Funds Programs
- Higher Education of the Disadvantaged (Act 101) Program
- Higher Education for Blind or Deaf Students Program
- Pennsylvania Internship Program
COVID-19 continues to create significant stress and uncertainty for students and families throughout Pennsylvania. At the same time, postsecondary schools are struggling to adapt to a new normal that lacks precedent, so we need to ensure that our programs are flexible enough to maintain effectiveness regardless of shifting circumstances that are beyond the student’s control.
An example of relief that could assist thousands of students is the temporary waiver of the PA State Grant Program’s eligibility distinction between traditional in-classroom students, who currently qualify for a $4,123 maximum award, and distance education students, who qualify for a $3,092 maximum award, or 75 percent of a traditional award. This waiver is holding harmless thousands of initially in-classroom recipients who could have otherwise lost their higher award amount.
Additionally, the May 1 PA State Grant application deadline has been extended by 2 weeks to May 15 to provide students with more flexibility. This deadline applies to all renewal applicants and first-time applicants who plan to enroll in colleges, universities, or a college transfer program at 2-year public or private colleges (except community colleges and designated Pennsylvania Open Admission institutions).
To apply for a PA State Grant, applicants must first complete the 2020-21 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Applicants can access this form online at www.PHEAA.org/FAFSA or www.fafsa.gov. Completing the FAFSA online saves time and reduces application and processing errors.
In addition to completing the FAFSA, first-time applicants must also submit a completed PA State Grant Form (SGF). First-time applicants who submit the FAFSA online will be automatically redirected to the SGF by following the onscreen prompts on the confirmation page. First-time applicants who have already submitted their FAFSA, but have not completed the SGF, will receive an email directing them to PHEAA’s secure Account Access site for completion. Both applications are free to submit.
Students and parents can click here to learn more about COVID-19's impact on PHEAA administered student aid programs.
Tips for Pennsylvanians Receiving Paper Stimulus Checks
The Pennsylvania Department of Banking & Securities (DOBS) is providing recommendations for Pennsylvanians receiving their economic impact payments, being issued by the federal government, in paper check form instead of direct deposit. The payments are part of the federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. The department also is reminding licensees of limitations on fees for cashing government checks.
Economic impact payments are specifically defined as a “Government Check” in the law that regulates check cashers in Pennsylvania. For any consumer that uses a licensed check casher or a registered retail check casher (e.g. grocery store) to cash this check, a maximum fee of 1.5 percent of the value of the check may be assessed. For example, on a $1,200 check, the maximum allowed fee is $18. A consumer would receive cash in the amount of $1,182.
To be sure that the establishment is properly licensed or registered consumers can search on the NMLS Consumer Access website by clicking here or can call 1-800-PA-BANKS. If an establishment cashes your Government Check and charges more than 1.5 percent, please contact DOBS immediately by calling 1-800-PA-BANKS or visiting the website at dobs.pa.gov. It is important that you retain records of the transaction including a receipt.
For more detailed information related to financial scams and tips for protecting yourself, the department has developed a financial scams guide which can be accessed by clicking here.
Business Loan Deferrals
The Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED) announced last week that the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (PIDA), Pennsylvania Minority Business Development Authority (PMBDA), and Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA) are deferring loans and that the maturity dates and amortization schedules of all applicable loans are extended by three additional calendar months.
PIDA borrowers with payments due in April, May and June of 2020 are deferred. All other terms and conditions of all applicable loans remain unchanged.
PMBDA borrowers with payments due in April, May and June of 2020, including principal, interest, and any associated fees are deferred. Accrual of interest that would be included with deferred payments is suspended. All other terms and conditions of applicable loans remain unchanged.
CFA borrowers except for PENNWORKS loans, with payments due in April, May and June of 2020, including principal, interest, and any associated fees are deferred. Accrual of interest that would be included with deferred payments is suspended. All other terms of all applicable loans remain unchanged.
DCED continues to update its website, www.dced.pa.gov with financial and other resources. Businesses seeking further guidance and clarification from DCED can also contact its customer service resource account via email at email@example.com.
Online Portal for Donations of Critical Medical Supplies
Last week, the Wolf Administration launched an online portal for individuals, corporations or community organizations to inform the commonwealth of critical medical supplies available for donation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Critical Donation Portal can be accessed by clicking here.
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) has received inquires from individuals and businesses looking to help first responders and medical professionals according to PEMA Director Randy Padfield. PEMA is able to coordinate donations of larger quantities for anyone who does not know how to get supplies to those who need them.
Even amid stabilizing numbers of new COVID-19 cases, the following supplies are needed most: surgical/procedure masks; form-fitting respirators (ex. N95/N99); face masks with integrated shield; medical grade alcohol-based hand sanitizer; aprons; protective gloves; protective goggles; isolation gowns; protective suits; and sanitizing wipes.
Further details and specifications required for any donated materials are available from the Pennsylvania Department of Health online via the Critical Medical Supplies Resource Guide which can be accessed by clicking here and the CDC’s Protective Clothing Resource Guide which can be accessed by clicking here.
PUC to Investigate Water and Wastewater Rate Increase Requests Filed by PWSA
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) voted recently to investigate proposed water and wastewater service rate increases submitted by the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Commission (PUC).
The Commission voted 5-0 to suspend the proposed rate increase requests for up to seven months from the time the rates would otherwise have become effective, and to assign the case to the PUC’s Office of Administrative Law Judge for corresponding proceedings and the issuance of a recommended decision.
Under the request filed by PWSA, a multi-year rate increase for water service would increase total annual operating revenues for water service by approximately $30.2 million (27.5%), effective January 1, 2021, and by approximately $7.2 million (5.7%), effective January 1, 2022.
PWSA has also filed a multi-year request to increase rates for wastewater service, increasing total annual operating revenues for wastewater service by approximately $13.6 million (21.8%), effective January 1, 2021, and by approximately $6.7 million (9.7%), effective January 1, 2022.
The combined proposals submitted by PWSA’s would increase the typical residential water and wastewater bill (for a customer using 3,000 gallons per month) from $72.49 to $86.31 per month (19.1%) in 2021. In 2022, the PWSA proposals would increase that same monthly residential water and wastewater bill from $86.31 to $91.71 (6.26%).
Public input hearings to gather comments about PWSA’s rate increase requests from concerned residents will be scheduled by the Administrative Law Judge and publicized by the PUC and PWSA when dates and locations have been finalized. More information on the ratemaking process is available by clicking here.
PWSA provides service to approximately 80,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in the City of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission balances the needs of consumers and utilities; ensures safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates; protects the public interest; educates consumers to make independent and informed utility choices; furthers economic development; and fosters new technologies and competitive markets in an environmentally sound manner.
LCB Expands Curbside Delivery Program
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) expanded its recently introduced curbside pickup service to 389 more Fine Wine & Good Spirits locations across the commonwealth beginning yesterday, to serve more customers seeking wine and spirits while maintaining social distancing practices in the interest of public health and safety. There are now 565 Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores across Pennsylvania accepting orders by phone for curbside pickup.
The expanded list of stores offering curbside service can be viewed by clicking here. Most stores will support curbside service Monday through Saturday – taking a limited number of orders on a first-call, first-served basis beginning at 9 a.m. each day and scheduling pickup appointments between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. those days – but some stores will operate on more limited days and hours.
Each store has its own unique inventory and staff will guide callers through the products available for purchase before finalizing each order and taking payment by phone. At pickup, customers will be required to present identification before the order is delivered.
Curbside pickup orders will be limited to up to six bottles per order, and credit cards are the only accepted form of payment. Orders will also be limited to one order per caller, per store, per day, and all curbside pickup sales are final.
Stores will continue to accept the first 50 to 100 orders placed each day, on a first-call, first-served basis, until fulfillment capacity grows to accept more orders per day. Orders will only be accepted by the store’s published phone number; no orders will be accepted by email or voicemail.
The LCB also continues to grow e-commerce sales at finewineandgoodspirits.com, now with more than 100 locations picking and packing e-commerce orders. Website access continues to be randomized to avoid overwhelming the site with high traffic and prolong access throughout the day, although daily orders have increased exponentially.
Pennsylvanians are also reminded of the following places and means for obtaining beverage alcohol during the current public health crisis.
- Nearly 1,000 licensed producers in Pennsylvania – including breweries, wineries, and distilleries – may still sell their own products for off-premises consumption.
- Restaurant and eating place licensees (bars, taverns, bottle shops, pizza/sub shops, supermarkets, convenience stores, etc.) can sell beer to go, up to 192 ounces (generally two six packs) per transaction.
- Restaurant licensees that also have wine expanded permits – including grocery stores and convenience stores – may also sell up to three liters of wine to go, per transaction.
- Beer distributors in Pennsylvania may continue sales for off-premises consumption.
- Residents remain able to purchase wine from more than 1,200 licensed direct wine shippers.
The LCB is not considering reopening stores to the public at this time, although the agency continues to monitor the situation in consultation with the Wolf Administration and public health officials.
Consumers are reminded that the sale of alcoholic beverages without a license is strictly prohibited under Pennsylvania law.
Food Distribution Event for Veterans – TODAY!
Nearly 26 percent on Pennsylvania households receiving food assistance have at least one person who has served or is currently serving in the military. MilitaryShare, a program of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, is designed to provide nutritious foods for veterans and military families.
The Food Bank in conjunction with the Veterans Leadership Program is hosting a MilitaryShare food distribution event for veterans and military families in need of food TODAY from noon – 5 p.m. The distribution event is being held at the Veterans Leadership Program, located at 2934 Smallman Street in the Strip District. Registration will take place on site, at the event.
Strict safety and social distancing will be practiced and drive-through and walk-up options will be available. Vehicles using the drive-through option should enter Mulberry Way on 29th Street (between Penn and Smallman). VLP staff will place prepared kits directly into vehicles.
Each eligible and registered family will receive items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy items and pantry staples based on the Food Bank’s available inventory. The Emergency Food Assistance Program is operated in accordance with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability. Eligibility is based on the income guidelines listed below:
| *Per additional person, add $6,630/year or $553/month
For more information, please call the Veterans Leadership Program at 412-481-8200.
Resources for Seniors
AARP Pennsylvania is providing information and resources about COVID-19 to help older Pennsylvanians and their families protect themselves from the virus and prevent it from spreading to others. Anyone with a spouse, sibling, parent, or loved one in a nursing home may be worried about their safety and well-being because of the coronavirus pandemic. AARP has consulted with leading nursing home experts to provide information with some key questions families can be asking nursing homes. Please click here to view the list of questions families can and should ask nursing homes where their loved ones reside.
If you are concerned about the safety and well-being of someone in an nursing home, you can contact the Pennsylvania Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program at 717-783-8975. AARP has also provided additional resources at www.aarp.org/coronavirus.
United Way Resources
The United Way of Pennsylvania has launched a public hub of compiled information on housing, food, child care, federal stimulus and more that is accessible to all Pennsylvanians. Public resources can be viewed at https://www.uwp.org/pacovid/ and information and resources for non-profit organizations are available by clicking here.
PA 211 continues to be a resource for Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 pandemic. For up-to-date verified information about COVID-19, individuals can text PACOVID to 898-211 to opt into weekly texts about fraud prevention tips, federal stimulus payments and other resources.
Anyone needing to have a live, two-way conversation with a 211 community resource navigator can continue to access help by texting their zip code to 898-211, or by visiting www.uwp.org/211gethelp for a guided search, or by simply dialing 211.
During these difficult days, while we practice social distancing in an effort to slow and ultimately stop the spread of COVID-19, there are many individuals in our neighborhoods across the country who continue to work on the front lines, providing life essential services. Health care professionals, first responders, police, firefighters, grocery and pharmacy workers among others continue to work in a dangerous environment. I want to thank these workers for all they are doing and encourage everyone to express your gratitude from a safe distance, when encountering these individuals.
As we have seen over the last several weeks, even those who are not on the front lines, are making contributions for the betterment of us all. We have heard and seen stories of people sewing needed masks, making monetary donations, donating blood, checking on elderly residents, delivering food. Businesses and other organizations are stepping up to donate supplies and money to help those in need.
It is important during this time we hear of the positive contributions so many of our citizens continue to make. I would like to highlight these efforts in this space. I encourage everyone out there to share stories of these selfless and heroic acts that are taking place in our neighborhoods. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can share these stories with everyone.
This week I’d like to highlight:
Welcome to The Table!
Welcome to The Table, is a program that provides a free meal every Wednesday evening from 5 to 7 p.m. to the people in McKees Rocks and Stowe Township. It is the brainchild of Mrs. Marlene Banks of McKees Rocks. Mrs. Banks along with several of Sto-Rox citizens, began serving meals in 2018 at the Christ Community Church on Chartiers Avenue. This program provides meals to 30 to 60 individuals and families and receives food donations and financial support from businesses and residents in the area.
The program’s cook and servers, are members of her family, including two grandsons, and close friends. These people share the belief that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect no matter what their station in life. Also rounding out her weekly volunteers are a retired superintendent and a former principal, from the Sto-Rox School district and the executive director of the McKees Rocks CDC. Father Regis Ryan has been known to stop in and lead a blessing for the program and the food. To date, more than 2,500 meals have been served every Wednesday since its inception in January 2018.
Last year, a water main break caused the program to move to the VFW Post 418 on Chartiers Avenue. Currently, the Wednesday dinner program is on hold because of COVID - 19. However, that did not stop Mrs. Banks and her passion to make sure the community of Sto-Rox is still being served. Welcome to The Table has been providing 60 breakfast bags each week to the food banks in Stowe Township and McKees Rocks (30 to each food bank). The breakfast bags are another brain child of Mrs. Banks and were given to the Wednesday evening diners each week. The thought that people would have dinner on Wednesday, but wake up Thursday morning hungry prompted Mrs. Banks to establish this second program.
Anyone who is interested in helping this effort through monetary donations can contact Mrs. Banks via phone at 412-771-6818, via email at email@example.com, or via mail at 216 Amelia Street, McKees Rocks, PA 15136. Also, Aldi's, GFS and Walmart Gift cards, paper products and bottled water are always welcome. Volunteers are welcome and encouraged to assist with making breakfast bags, providing the evening meal, set-up, serving and clean-up when they resume providing dinner on Wednesday evenings.
Justine Jernigan, The Beauty Suite
I would also like to highlight an article that appeared in the Northside Chronicle on April 23 that told the story of a local small business owner in Troy Hill who is making and donating masks. It’s a terrific, inspirational piece written by Ashlee Green of the Northside Chronicle which can be read by clicking here.
Also, I wanted to let everyone know that St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at 933 Brookline Boulevard, serves free dinners on Wednesdays. For more information please call 412-531-9575.
Do you have a favorite recipe? A favorite dish you like to prepare?
As we continue to adhere to the current stay-at-home order issued by the governor, many are eating more meals at home than usual, and many are trying to stretch food out as long as possible to reduce trips to the grocery store and reduce costs. As such, maybe you are looking to try something new?
I encourage anyone who would like to share a favorite recipe with others to please do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll share through this forum. This week, I’d like to present a recipe that was submitted by Norma from McKees Rocks. Thanks Norma for sharing your recipe for making cooked carrots a little more interesting:
Put about a cup of carrots in a microwavable dish. Throw in a one-ounce package of dried cranberries. Throw in a quarter-teaspoon of ground ginger. Cover with water and stir a bit. Put in microwave for 10 minutes.
According to the National Institutes of Health, walking at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week can reduce a person’s risk for coronary heart disease by about 19 percent. In addition to improving physical health, walking can help a person’s mental health. Studies show it can help reduce anxiety, depression, and a negative mood. It can also boost self-esteem and reduce symptoms of social withdrawal.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana
| Brookline District
1039 Brookline Boulevard
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Weekdays – 9 am – 5 pm
543 Main Capitol |
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Weekdays – 8:30 am – 5 pm
524 Pine Hollow Road
Weekdays – 10 am – 4 pm
| Beechview Satellite
1660 Broadway Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216